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The Truth Behind Pwn2Own

Behind Pwn2Own: Exclusive Interview With Charlie Miller
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Alan: I see. So someone with a Web application might come to your company to make sure that their user authentication is robust or that their code won’t allow arbitrary queries to be made to the SQL database? 

Charlie: Sure, that is one type of customer ISE has. Another might have a desktop application that they want to make sure isn’t going to get hacked or they might want to make it tamper-resistant to hackers.

Alan: Without going into the details, what would be the silliest, most obvious, and most catastrophic error you’ve ever caught during your code review?

Charlie: Well, none of them are silly because some companies/developers don’t have security training, which is why they hire us. As for the most obvious/catastrophic, I’ve found command injection vulnerabilities that allowed me to execute code on a client’s server within a few minutes.

Alan: Well, let’s get to the part our readers will want to hear the most about. When people hear about Pwn2Own and systems failing within seconds, many imagine a Hollywood-esque free-for-all, with rows upon rows of teams trying to hack a single system (like the scene from Transformers). In truth, Pwn2Own is a lot more civilized and structured, isn't it?  How does this compare to other security challenges?

Charlie: Yes, I took down the Mac in under a minute each time. However, this doesn't show the fact that I spent many days doing research and writing the exploit before the day of the competition. It only looks Hollywood because you don't see the hard work in the preparation. If you set me down in front of an application I've never seen before and told me I have 2 minutes to hack it, as is often the case in movies, I'd have no more luck than your grandma at accomplishing it. Well, maybe a little more of a chance, but not much!

As for comparing this to other competitions, most other competitions face teams of hackers against programs written for the contest with bugs purposely added. I like Pwn2Own because its against real software and the bugs found are real bugs and are given to the vendors to fix, so some good comes out of it too.

Alan: I hadn’t realized that Pwn2Own was one of the few contests to employ real software. I completely agree--if you’re intentionally placing bugs, it’s nothing more than a Where’s Waldo puzzle. With enough teams trying, someone will guess the bug that’s been added. Historically, most of the criticism behind “hacking contests” was that it did not reflect realistic conditions. Company XYZ would claim “our firewall is 100% secure. We’ll give $100 to anyone who can crack our system as Trade Show ABC.” Of course, by the time the trade show was over, the system wasn’t cracked. Obviously, the company will fail to mention that no one tried because the $100 reward wasn’t worth the effort.

Charlie: Right. That is true at Pwn2Own partially too. Mac bugs aren’t really valuable, but while $5,000 is a lot of money, it’s really not that much when you consider what a bad guy could make with an exploit for an unknown vulnerability in, say, IE 8 running on Vista. The one thing other contests do test that Pwn2Own doesn’t is speed. I could have written my exploit in a day or a week or even a month. At other contests, you have to be ready to go non-stop for three days or whatever. I really never work more than eight hours a day.

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  • 2 Hide
    crisisavatar , March 25, 2009 7:28 AM
    he was born to kill
  • 6 Hide
    Niva , March 25, 2009 8:00 AM
    Blah, sad he didn't give an estimate to linux security. He said it has some method of protection but didn't expand on that much...

    As osx market share grows we'll see more exploits.
  • 0 Hide
    Silluete , March 25, 2009 8:12 AM
    Interesting thing about sandboxing, it's mean chrome more safe than other browser? or i missing something here?
  • 0 Hide
    lire210 , March 25, 2009 9:29 AM
    whats up mac
  • 1 Hide
    pcfxer , March 25, 2009 12:45 PM
    Chrome uses processes instead of threads. The difference is that the memory space for each process is different--better sandboxing.

    Processes have increased headroom: they are making a copy of local variables and structures at the time of "forking".

    Threads "fork off" as functional code and work with their own memory space... in a nutshell.

    Sandboxing doesn't mean that Chrome is safer, it does mean that if sandboxing is implemented correctly Chrome CAN be safer. Security is so relative ;) .
  • 4 Hide
    AlanDang , March 25, 2009 12:57 PM
    Exactly, Chrome is currently safer than any other web browser on Windows Vista or Windows 7. We have an upcoming interview that talks a little bit more about this, but we haven't made plans on a dedicated article. Is that something people are interested in?
  • 0 Hide
    echdskech , March 25, 2009 1:44 PM
    AlanDangExactly, Chrome is currently safer than any other web browser on Windows Vista or Windows 7. We have an upcoming interview that talks a little bit more about this, but we haven't made plans on a dedicated article. Is that something people are interested in?count me in A


    Count me in. Come to think of it, I spend more time on my browser than any other piece of software (except the OS ofcourse) at any given day. primarily because I use it both at work for research and for play (ie reading articles here). Also, trend these days seem indicate it becoming more and more a target rather than the OS.

    Would be extra nice if the level of detail would be like the articles you guys write when a new cpu architecture is discussed. =)
  • 0 Hide
    anthony lackey , March 25, 2009 2:50 PM
    There is less ppl attacking Mac's because they aren't the mainstream. Hackers would rather try to infect as many ppl as possible thats why they target PC users.
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 25, 2009 4:16 PM
    If Apple does not allow cloning mac os may be safe for a long while, nobody likes to be tied to a single hardware vender. I really don't see how Apple could pull more that 15% to 18% market share without clones. JMO.
  • 1 Hide
    dedhorse , March 25, 2009 4:25 PM
    Good interview. Makes up for that Mac review.
  • 0 Hide
    zodiacfml , March 25, 2009 5:16 PM
    count me in. :)  i've been using chrome since it came out.
    though, in my usage, they haven't fixed the issue with auto-hide taskbar in vista.
  • 0 Hide
    eddieroolz , March 25, 2009 5:27 PM
    Great read, nice article Alan!
  • 0 Hide
    4c1dr41n1 , March 25, 2009 7:18 PM
    What if I use a virtual machine? I could

    1) copy it, open it, surf the web, close it, delete the copy.
    2) copy it again, open it, use internet bank, close it, delete copy again.

    Nice enough sandboxing?
  • 1 Hide
    Herbert_HA , March 25, 2009 7:31 PM
    It's a very nice article, indeed.

    But please, stop using so many pages! It's a pain in the ass to keep clicking every 2 questions...and that was an small article, other have more than 10 pages, unnecessarily. I guess you people are trying to keep access numbers up, so you could sell more ads, but it's surely not user-friendly to have to load the same content over and over.
  • -4 Hide
    4c1dr41n4 , March 25, 2009 7:36 PM
    What if I use a virtual machine? I could

    1) copy it, open it, surf the web, close it, delete copy.
    2) copy again, open it, use internet banking, close it, delete copy again.

    Nice enough sandboxing?
  • 1 Hide
    nukemaster , March 25, 2009 9:12 PM
    4c1dr41n4What if I use a virtual machine? I could1) copy it, open it, surf the web, close it, delete copy. 2) copy again, open it, use internet banking, close it, delete copy again.Nice enough sandboxing?

    In that case, just mount a live linux CD image in the drive then use it. always clean, no need to del + copy.
  • -4 Hide
    Anonymous , March 25, 2009 10:05 PM
    Miller, page 4: "In neither case did I get root/admin access."

    In other words, he actually didn't hack the Mac.

    What in the world is this fraud? How can you say you 'pwned' a computer without root access?
  • 0 Hide
    TheFuzzball , March 26, 2009 12:50 AM
    God help us when Conficker becomes cross-platform :D 
  • 0 Hide
    Anonymous , March 26, 2009 1:43 AM
    I wish there was more Charlie's voice in this interview. Now Alan did the most of the talking and Charlie basically had to say yes or no. At least in the most important topics.

    Nice reading, but not perfect.
  • 1 Hide
    Anonymous , March 26, 2009 1:58 AM
    It's a little upsetting that he sidesteps the issue of linux on the grounds of granny's incompetence, does he expect granny to stay on top of vulnerabilities in all of her installed software on the windows or mac boxes, assuming she'd need more third party software sources on either of the other platforms than say ubuntu with it's repositories.
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